Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists have popularized the idea that atheism, contrary to other positions, is not a belief; it is simply ‘the absence of belief’ in God or a supreme being. It almost sounds esoteric. Theists believe that God exists and atheists merely lack that belief. Well, on that view, my Chevy is just as much of an atheist as Richard Dawkins, for it, too, lacks the belief that God exists. And I don’t say that lightly; I love my Chevy.
Now, there is some truth to the idea that atheists ‘lack belief.’ They do. But that’s not enough. Like I said, what is it that separates an atheist from my Chevy? My Chevy lacks belief in God. Animals lack belief in God. Newborn babies lack belief in God. There are lots of things that lack belief in God and yet aren’t atheists. It takes more than ‘lack of belief’ to define an atheist.
Furthermore, Atheism isn’t the only worldview that lacks belief in God. All non-theists lack belief. The lack of belief is an umbrella definition that groups together three different types of non-theism: atheism, agnosticism, and apatheism. Atheists, agnostics, and apatheists all lack belief in God, but for different reasons. Some atheists take offense at being called agnostics, and rightly so, for their position is more defined. But if atheism is simply the absence of belief, then what is the difference between an atheist and an agnostic? Both atheists and agnostics lack belief in God, but we need to clarify the distinction.
All atheists lack belief in God, but not all who lack belief in God are atheists. This means that it isn’t enough for an atheist to only say that she lacks belief in God–there needs to be more. If an atheist says that she lacks belief in God, while that’s all well and true, she must further define her position: Why does she not believe in God? If it’s because she doesn’t know if God exists, then she is an agnostic. If it’s because she doesn’t care, then she’s an apatheist. If it’s because she maintains that there is no God in which to believe in, then she is an atheist. But notice that last one: the atheist maintains that there is no God, i.e. she holds the belief that the proposition, ‘There is no God’ is true about the world.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines Atheism as: “the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God. (1)” There is a subtle, but important difference between not believing in something and believing that something is not (does not exist). Atheism adopts the latter position in holding that God does not exist. Atheism is more than mere lack of belief, it is the denial of the existence of God. Mere lack of belief makes the atheist no different from a newborn baby or my Chevy.